Alle Menschen müssen sterben,
Alles Fleisch vergeht wie Heu;
Was da lebet muss verderben,
Soll es anders werden neu.
Dieser Leib, der muss verwesen,
Wenn er ewig soll genesen
Der so grossen Herrlichkeit,
Die den Frommen ist bereit.
Hark! A voice saith, ‘All are mortal,
Yea, all flesh must fade as grass;
Only through Death’s gloomy portal
To a better life ye pass;
for this body’s doomed to anguish,
Here must linger and must languish
Ere it rise in glorious might,
Fit to dwell with saints in light.’
This hymn for the dying originated in 1652, with the anonymous melody dating from 1687. Bach gives it the simple treatment, presenting the chorale in the top voice (which I double with the lower octave on the repeat of the first stanza to change the colour) over an ever-present rhythmic motive. The latter is often seen to be the ‘joy motive’ in Bach, which is why this chorale prelude is sometimes heard in a rather quick tempo. I don’t see it that way. Death was certainly, in Bach’s Lutheran creed, a welcome relief from the burdens of life on earth, and the gate to eternal life, but surely it is a more contemplative joy that is being expressed here. The false relation between the C sharp and the C natural in the last bar cannot be heard properly in too fast a tempo. So much of Bach’s greatest music was written on the theme of death: after all, he was no stranger to it, having lost both his parents by the age of ten, his first wife while he was away from home, and eleven of his twenty children. This short prelude captures, in just a few lines, his faith, his joy, and, above all, his musical perfection. I am reminded of what Mendelssohn said after Schumann played him a chorale prelude:
The melody seemed interlaced with garlands of gold, evoking in me the thought: were life deprived of all trust, all faith, this chorale would restore it in me.
from notes by Angela Hewitt © 2001